Formerly 'Rambling with a cantankerous old mule"
Warning: both disturbing and heartwarming images ahead.
A stone’s throw from Johannesburg, through the gap from Southgate and down the old Vereeniging Road, one comes across a small informal settlement with no name. The area is a dust bowl in winter and the smoke lies depressingly heavy on the earth.
This huddle of shacks in an area 1km long and less than 500m wide is home to around 4500 people – mostly refugees and many affected by HIV – and is the epitome of U2′s well-known song Where The Streets Have No Name:
And our love turns to rust,
We’re beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled in dust
I’ll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name
The community is practically invisible to the outside world. It has no tarred roads, no running water and no flush toilets. The local metro council contracted a company to install both water reticulation infrastructure and toilets but these still stand locked and unused, the contractors apparently not having been paid. A water truck comes by sporadically, but not often enough …
In winter people battle hunger and piercing cold; in summer it’s hunger, extreme heat and flooding from the seasonal rains. Unemployment is off the charts.
But in the midst of the despair is hope.
A decade ago, retired Catholic nun Sister Mary saw the community’s need and started a small school – Lerato Educational Centre. She herself became a squatter – claiming land earmarked for a cemetery by the metro council for her school. Relying completely on goodwill and donations, the school now serves around 250 children – from kindergarten to 2nd Grade.
Women from the community are trained, first as teachers’ aides and then to become teachers themselves. Classrooms have been built, and proper (flush) toilets installed. And apart from their education, the children also receive breakfast, lunch and a small meal to take home with them – ostensibly for other family members who may not have eaten that day. On the morning I visited, a bakkie (pickup) pulled up just before lunch to deliver a hot, home-cooked meal – enough to feed all the children and teachers. And that particular family does this once a week …
Although officially retired, Sister Mary remains a visionary. She is forever thinking about how to do even more for her children – another classroom here, a better playground there. Constantly hat in hand, she has become something of a beggar herself. But in her resolute attitude one sees how much she cares about her children and their families in her little congregation of shacks.
(Yes, there are lots of photos but I think it’s worth it. Click on any photo to open up the photo gallery.)